The ADS Workshop – Yep, that would be Anna Deavere Smith, at Chapin!

When I learned from Alile Eldridge, Coordinator of Community Life & Diversity, that acclaimed actress, playwright, activist, and professor Anna Deavere Smith would be conducting a workshop for Chapin’s professional community, immediately a flurry of questions spewed forth, like: The Anna Deavere Smith? How? Why? What? Nurse Jackie???

Alile and her workshop partners, Drama Teacher, Sarah Bellantoni, and Director of Studies, Ilana Pergam were kind enough to field our questions and share their riveting workshop experiences… 

Anna Deavere Smith and Chapin faculty during ADS Workshop

Anna Deavere Smith and Chapin faculty during ADS Workshop

What were some of the goals for the workshop?

Answer from Ilana Pergam: Anna Deavere Smith is an actor (Nurse Jackie, The West Wing), playwright (Twilight, Los Angeles, Fires in the Mirror), and activist. She is internationally recognized for her work and is dedicated to the art of empathy in performance. She speaks of “the broad jump towards the other” and what it means to reach another person: what do you learn about someone through listening to her and telling her story in her words? What does the effort to tell someone else’s story tell us about ourselves?

Chapin was and remains inspired by the questions posed by Anna Deavere Smith. As part of our anniversary celebration of school founder Maria Bowen Chapin’s 150th birthday and her call for us to be “brave for others,” members of Chapin’s professional community had the opportunity to work with Anna Deavere Smith.

As a community of educators whose goal for all our children is progress, we must develop our skills of listening, and of encouraging our young people to talk without shame, so we can all learn and grow. Our work with Anna has provided us individually and collectively with tools to become a stronger community of listeners and educators. 

How did Chapin happen upon Anna? 

Answer from Ilana Pergam: Dr. Hayot met her at an event and they began talking about working together. I believe Anna was interested in connecting with young people. From there, we had several meetings with her to think about how she might participate in the life of Chapin, and while we started with the idea of kids, we quickly realized the first work would have to be with faculty and staff. We were meeting with Anna from April 2012 working on this, but I think Dr. Hayot and Anna as early as fall 2011. I believe what began as a possible effort to have Anna work with students, or to have us use her work with students, became an effort to use her work to develop empathy and compassion within our community, first among the adults, and then among the children.

What did Chapin think Anna could bring that would inspire and transform the professional community?

Answer from Ilana Pergam: The ability to share with us her insights on embodying the other; how to truly listen so as to suspend judgment and fully appreciate where another person is coming from. Developing compassion and empathy is something we all feel is important to do with our students, but it starts with us, as adults.

What was the name of the workshop?

Answer from Ilana Pergam: Embodying the Other: A Workshop on Listening, Watching, and Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes.

Briefly describe format and intensity of workshop.

Answer from Sarah Bellantoni: The workshop took place over three Saturdays. Each session was four hours, with a small lunch break in the middle. We were paired with a colleague and then asked to interview them on our own time for 45 minutes to an hour. Individually, we selected about a minute from our interview to work on for the final session. As we transcribed the interview, we were instructed to pay close attention to the breath, the intonation, the rhythm and gestures of our partner. The process of preparing your interview involved listening to a recording and watching the video of the interview intensively. We memorized our minute and then shared them during our final session. 

Answer From Alile Eldridge: The group began each session together with a movement warm-up series led by dancer and choreographer Michael Leon Thomas. Throughout the workshop, Michael guided the group through movement practices and techniques. The process aided each of us, as we worked to embody the gestures and movements of our partners, which we gleaned by studying our interview film segments. We also spent time practicing diction and vocal techniques with dialect coach, Amy Stoller. 

Anna is a tour de force on the stage delivering complicated human experiences and insights, most notably around race relations. Did the workshop have a diversity component to it?

Answer from Sarah Bellantoni: Many times when speaking about diversity, we begin with what we all have in common, what unites as people. Anna Deavere Smith came at the concept of diversity from the other end. She posited that if we begin by what makes us individuals—we are more able to achieve what she termed as the “necessary distance.” This distance allowed us to analyze not criticize our other. Anna spoke a lot about the “broad leap towards the other,” this notion that by paying attention, by inhabiting the other’s words, breath, and movement we would be more able to understand that person. This process is not, Anna makes sure to articulate, about agreeing with everything that a person says or does but about stretching one’s empathetic imagination.

Answer From Alile Eldridge: Diversity is at the forefront of this work. As each of the participants worked to develop a deeper understanding of one another, we thought deeply about what it means to truly know another person. Through shared stories, we developed connections with one another and recognize that each of us brings a unique set of qualities, experiences, and perspectives into our community. 

What impact do you expect the workshop series to have on entire Chapin community?

Answer from Sarah Bellantoni: I think there are many different areas where this work could take roots in our community. The benefit we as faculty got from just getting to be with each other and get to know each other in a different way was incredibly valuable on its own. Beyond that, I think the practice of listening to another person, hearing their story, and stepping inside that story has application in each of our divisions in a multitude of ways. When preparing for our interviews, Anna Deavere Smith planted these few prompts that to me, have great resonance in an educational context, “Who listened to you? Who helped you talk?” Creating a learning environment where girls can find their voice is at the center of so much of our work at Chapin. What the Anna Deavere Smith process helped to clarify for me was how strong the link is between listening and empowering a voice. 

Answer from Alile Eldridge: This experience will impact the community in numerous ways. To start, each of the workshop participants have taken their experiences into their day-to-day lives. Each of us, transformed by the experience, will carry this into our professional work in unique ways. After our last workshop meeting, we came together as a group to debrief. We were lucky to have Anna Deavere Smith join us during that meeting. This is a work in progress, and we all look forward to seeing how the next steps of this project unfold within the Chapin community. 

ADS Works – Institute of Arts and Civic Dialogue, hopes to affect the way artists, in this case faculty members, are trained: combining virtuosity and excellence embracing social issues of the day.

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